A starry rectangle of outer space. A dark-haired girl, her face ambivalent. A fish-shaped spaceship flying toward a gothic tower. These are the first three panels of On a Sunbeam, Tillie Walden’s new graphic novel—the tale of a girl and her interplanetary journey.
Mia has joined a crew that travels through outer space, documenting and repairing old buildings. The narrative hops between the crew’s adventures and Mia’s memories of her time at an elite boarding school, where she fell for a girl named Grace. As with many dual narratives, part of the plot and mystery of the book is how the two story lines connect. Mia arrives on the spaceship alone, without Grace. Slowly, readers learn how they became separated and how they might be reunited.
Refreshingly, the setting is neither a utopia nor a dystopia. There are problems: When the Staircase, a frontier planet, refused to sell its resources or join a treaty, that section of the galaxy was made “illegal.” There are annoying bureaucrats and school bullies. But there are also magical forests, school proms, and first kisses. And it is a world in which two girls can fall for each other, and be teased for their geekiness, not their gender.
Walden is 22, and has published four books. On a Sunbeam is her fifth. This early start to her career has given readers a window into a developing voice. Her subject matter has stretched from a fantastical palace mired in a three-year winter to her own teenage years as an ice skater. On a Sunbeam is Walden’s first plunge into science fiction, and she is frank about her uneasy relationship with the genre. “I don’t really like sci-fi,” she told me. Her particular gripe is that “a lot of it is full of dudes and cold white spaces and capitalism.” But On a Sunbeam has science fiction’s familiar trappings. Over more than 500 pages, the book features space travel, interplanetary conflict, and a story line that will be recognizable to viewers of Star Wars or Firefly: a crew of outsiders braving conflict and breaking laws to fulfill a mission.
On a Sunbeam hews close to one of science fiction’s most archetypal story arcs. Joseph Campbell lays out the notion of the “monomyth” in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, claiming it to be the story behind all stories. A simple version is as follows: A man leaves home, receives a call to adventure, encounters a mentor, undergoes trials, confronts an evil, and returns rewarded and transformed. While not completely universal, as Campbell claimed, it is a common template that lends itself to dramatic plots. George Lucas credits Campbell’s concept for the plot of Star Wars. You’ll find a version of it in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, and in the Wachowski siblings’ The Matrix. From within this familiar plot arc On a Sunbeam makes its stance against “dudes and cold white spaces and capitalism.”